Report: FOIA exemption use increases, processing time decreases

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Federal agencies are more quickly processing Freedom of Information Act requests, but the speed of processing doesn't mean agencies are more transparent. A comparison of 2008 to 2010 FOIA data at 15 agencies reveals that agencies increased their reliance on nine exemptions used to withhold information in response to FOIA requests, finds a December 2011 report (.pdf) by Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington and OpenTheGovernment.org.

Collectively, the 15 agencies relied on exemptions 33 percent more frequently in 2010 than in 2008. More than half of the agencies cited FOIA Exemption 5 more often, which authorizes agencies to withhold "inter-agency or intra-agency memorandums or letters which would not be available by law to a party other than a party in litigation with the agency," according to the law.

"This data reveals the Obama administration has been less transparent than the Bush administration in allowing the public access to some of the internal workings of government," write report authors.

Federal agencies did process FOIA requests more quickly in 2010 than they did in 2008, finds the report. In total, the 15 agencies analyzed in the review received 11 percent more FOIA requests in 2010 than in 2008, yet managed to process 8 percent more requests in 2010 than in 2008. They also had 8 percent fewer requests pending at the end of the fiscal year than they had 2 years prior.

Not all agencies saw an uptick in processing. The Justice Department and the Environmental Protection Agency processed slightly fewer requests, and three more agencies processed significantly fewer requests: Interior Department, National Archives and Records Administration, and State Department.

Report authors relied on information from FOIA.gov cross-referenced with each agency's annual FOIA report posted on the DoJ's office of information policy's website. According to the report, it was virtually "impossible to assess key areas of progress" because much of the government's FOIA information is flawed--"casting doubt on its overall reliability." Much of the 73-page report is focused on this challenge, with lists of data discrepancies, problems with FOIA.gov and suggestions for better metrics.

Among the data problems  were contradictory numbers between FOIA.gov and agency's reported average processing times at DoI and Treasury. The report also cites discrepancies between agency annual FOIA reports and FOIA.gov regarding the number of requests pending at the end of fiscal year. This problem applied to 2008 and 2010 data for the Homeland Security Department, 2008 data for Health and Human Services and 2008 data for NARA.

The report suggests data quality would improve if the office of information policy provided additional training to agency personnel. Authors also recommend chief FOIA officers be required to sign off on all annual reports, and agency annual reports should be audited with results posted to FOIA.gov and sent to administration officials and congressional committees.

The report also suggests additional metrics not currently included in annual reports. In addition, report authors write that "some of the metrics currently available are misleading." The report recommends the addition of three data metrics and suggests the modification of one.

Finally, the report identifies problems with the dashboard at FOIA.gov, including technical glitches, usability issues, missing data and inaccurate chart entries. Report authors recommend DoJ conduct a full audit of the site, publicly post on FOIA.gov all known problems and a schedule for when the problems will be resolved, and add a transparent reporting system to the site.

For more:
- see the report (.pdf)

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